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What does ‘getting the bomb’ mean?

Max Singer

It seems the West is headed toward an agreement with Iran, after which Tehran will officially be treated as if it does not have the bomb.

It now seems that most of the public discourse on how or whether to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons misses the point of the current stage of the conflict. Today, the practical question seems to be: Define the stage at which Iran is thought to have the bomb. 

And it is pretty clear what is likely to happen.

Of course, there still is a lot of uncertainty. But the direction in which events are now heading appears to indicate there will be an agreement between the US (or the UN) and Iran, which will commit Tehran to not producing nuclear weapons that could be used as weapons to threaten or attack another country.

However, the agreement will not prevent Iran from finishing its program of building a large supply of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, which are the key ingredients needed to produce nuclear weapons.

It is probable that the coming agreements will deny Iran the right to do the research and development necessary to design practical nuclear weapons, or to produce the components of nuclear weapons once they have the necessary designs. But Iran says it has no program to produce nuclear weapons, and that everything it is doing is toward peaceful uses of nuclear energy. So it is not much of a concession for the Islamic Republic to say it will not produce nuclear weapons.

The problem is that the R&D to design a nuclear weapon, and the manufacturing of actual weapon components, are difficult to detect. Thus, no outsider will be able to know whether Iran actually has any nuclear weapons, so long as Iran wishes to keep it secret and is able to prevent leaks.

The accepted diplomatic understanding will be that Iran does not have a bomb and has agreed not to obtain one. This will be seen by most as a great victory for US President Barack Obama, though there will be skeptics who warn about what Iran will do secretly and in the future.

The design and production of nuclear weapons for those with the necessary enriched uranium or  plutonium – like Tehran – probably requires at least a year. Yet nobody will know at any given time how much of that work Iran has already done. Therefore, after the likely agreement, Iran will be anywhere from a month to several years from having physical nuclear weapons in its hands – depending on how much work it is able to do clandestinely before the clock starts ticking. It is even possible that it already has, or will have in the next year or so, actual concealed nuclear weapons, regardless of likely potential agreements. 

It seems probable the US will accept an agreement with the effects described above. In return, Iran would get a reduction or elimination of sanctions, reinforcement of the US policy not to support internal opposition to the Iranian revolutionary regime, and protection against an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear weapons facilities. 

AS FAR as the US is concerned, such an agreement would mean that the US, its allies and the UN were successful in preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons. But as far as Israel is concerned, such an agreement would be at least a partial failure to prevent Iran from getting the bomb. 

This is because Israel would not have the reliable capability to detect whether Iran had a bomb at any given time, and Iran quite possibly would have a “breakout capability” – that is, the capability to produce actual bombs too quickly for Israel to reliably prevent it. 

Although the US says it believes its intelligence would provide early warning, experience shows that Israel cannot be confident of either the CIA’s ability to find covert Iranian weapons programs or of US political willingness to communicate intelligence reports that are diplomatically inconvenient. Of course, Israel is safer if Iran only has a breakout capability, rather than actual physical bombs that desperate Iranians might use in a crisis. 

The clear gain from such an agreement would be at least temporary protection against one of the main reasons many countries are trying to stop Tehran’s nuclear program: the Iranian ability to use nuclear threats to support diplomatic or terrorist actions against countries in the region. So long as such an agreement is in force, and Iran denies that it has nuclear weapons – or any program to actually produce them from the uranium and plutonium they have – the Islamic Republic cannot threaten to use nuclear weapons to cover aggression against its neighbors, and there is less pressure on others in the region to acquire their own nuclear weapons. 

At the same time, it’s not quite true that Iran will be unable to deny it has nuclear weapons and use those nuclear weapons to frighten its neighbors. When countries decide what they have to do to protect their security, and which side they should join, they don’t think only about the current situation. They ask which way things are going, and who will be able to protect them in coming years.  After likely agreements of the kind discussed here, Tehran’s neighbors may think that although Iran probably does not currently have nuclear weapons, there is a good chance it will soon get them, and that it is not too soon to start to move under Iran’s umbrella. And there will still be some pressure for Saudi Arabia and Turkey to move towards getting their own nuclear weapons. 

Although the plausible agreements with Iran would not meet Israel’s definition of “preventing Iran from getting the bomb,” if such agreements are signed it is very unlikely that Israel would take military action against the Iranian nuclear program. The case for such an attack would be much weaker. 

Moreover, there would be much less potential international support for an attack, and much stronger opposition from the US. 

IT IS hard to see why Iran would not want to make the kind of deal discussed here. Even if it is determined to eventually acquire actual, overt nuclear weapons that are ready to use and which can be used to make threats, for at least a year, it would benefit from promising not to do so. Such an agreement would provide protection against Israel, weaken internal opposition and offer relief from sanctions, while allowing Tehran to overtly produce more bomb material and covertly do the work needed to produce actual bombs. 

In brief, it is feasible that Iran will agree not to produce any nuclear weapons and that, for a time, it will officially be treated as if it does not have any actual nuclear bombs. But Israel will not feel safe, because there will be no way to ensure that Iran will not have the capability to produce a number of bombs – within a few months or less from when Israel finds that its fears are coming true, and Iran is producing actual bombs.  

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